With six days remaining before Election Day, independent candidate Eliot Cutler said today that the odds are against him in his bid to become Maine's next governor. Reiterating a statement he made about the three-way race earlier this year, Cutler says Mainers must vote their conscience, and if they're concerned that a vote for him will wind up electing another candidate, they're free to make a different choice. And late today, his most prominent backer did just that.
After publicly endorsing Eliot Cutler for governor in August, Sen. Angus King announced Wednesday that he will withdraw his support for the struggling fellow independent and instead endorse Democrat Mike Michaud as Maine's next governor. King said: "After many months considering the issues and getting to know the candidates, it is clear that the voters of Maine are not prepared to elect Eliot in 2014."
King's announcement followed a morning press conference called by Cutler, who said that while he intends to remain in the race, he is a realist and well aware of the mounting pressure that many of his supporters and those leaning toward his campaign are wrestling with. At issue are two key questions: With the polls showing Democrat Mike Michaud and Republican Gov. Paul LePage locked in a dead heat at around 40 percent each, isn't a vote for Cutler really a vote for LePage? And how could Cutler possibly win?
"I think the odds are long -- I've said that," Cutler said. "I'm probably running third -- likely running third."
The hastily called press conference led many reporters to speculate that the polls had taken their toll on the independent and that his campaign was on the verge of collapse. Instead, Cutler used the opportunity to assure his core supporters that he would welcome their votes. But he has also heard from Cutler-leaning voters who are saying that none of the polls has put him in the clutches of victory. And they say they fear four more years of LePage, defined only by 1 or 2 percentage points.
"I want to reiterate this morning the simple statement that I made in Yarmouth many months ago," Cutler said. "Anyone who has supported me, but who now worries that I cannot win and is thereby compelled by their fears or by their conscience to vote instead for Mr. LePage or Mr. Michaud, should do so."
"He's essentially saying to voters, I don't think I have a very good chance of winning here," says University of Maine Political Science Professor Mark Brewer. Brewer says the timing of Cutler's remarks and the tightness of the race between LePage and Michaud will push many Cutler-leaning voters to abandon the candidate if their primary goal is to defeat the incumbent Republican.
Brewer says that an apparent absence of a major get-out-the-vote effort for Cutler, his trailing in the polls and comparatively little spending on television ads do not paint a promising picture for the Cutler campaign.
"All that stuff combines together to give a message -and Cutler giving part of it himself, saying, essentially, 'I can't win this race, so if you need some kind of a release from me to go ahead and change your vote - go ahead and do it,' " Brewer says.
Among former Cutler supporters who have now abandoned the independent to support Michaud, Cutler's remarks fell short of what they had hoped to hear. At a press event featuring former Cutler backers, Jim Shaffer, a member of MPBN's Board of Trustees and a retired media executive, said Cutler should have delivered on a pledge he made to his campaign contributors.
"I've heard several positions from Eliot on the spoiler question and earlier this year he looked at several of his check-writing supporters and said, 'I'll just guarantee you that Paul LePage won't be the next governor' -- I think he's backed away from that position," Shaffer said. "It's one thing to make that guarantee, but it's another to simply say, 'Vote your conscience.' "
At the Michaud for Governor campaign, spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said Democrats are encouraged by Cutler's statements, but are still emphasizing that it's critical for Mainers to unite to defeat LePage.
The governor's supporters, meanwhile, know that LePage's victory is directly related to how many votes Cutler receives. Maine Republican Party Chairman Richard Bennett praised Cutler for not withdrawing in what he called the "the face of cruel and repeated attacks by Democratic Party bosses and Michaud supporters."
Late this afternoon, the LePage campaign issued a statement saying Sen. Olympia Snowe has formally endorsed the incumbent governor in the race. Campaign spokesman Alex Willette said, "Senator Snowe's support means so much to the Governor especially coming from a true independent leader both here in Maine and across the nation." Snowe will be releasing a recorded call to Republican voters later tonight explaining the reasons for her endorsement.